French grandmaster Maxime Vachier-Lagrave pulled off a major upset in the Speed Chess Championship on Friday, defeating World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen 13-11 to reach the finals of the online blitz and bullet tournament.

Speed Chess Championship final odds
Hikaru Nakamura (left) will face Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (right) in the final of the 2020 Speed Chess Championship on Saturday. (Image: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com)

Vachier-Lagrave outscored Carlsen in both the five-minute and three-minute portions of the match, then held on for dear life as Carlsen attempted to stage a furious comeback during the one-minute bullet phase.

Carlsen Comeback Comes Up Short

After the first two sections, MVL held a solid 9-7 lead, winning 4.5-3.5 in both portions. He then jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the bullet section, pushing his lead to 12-8 with just over 10 minutes left to play.

With time winding down, Carlsen needed to win out to have any chance of catching Vachier-Lagrave. He proceeded to win the next three games to close the gap to 12-11 with just over one minute remaining.

The rules of the Speed Chess Championship dictate that any game which starts with time on the clock must be completed, meaning Carlsen now had a chance to force overtime with the Black pieces. But Vachier-Lagrave held his ground, forcing Carlsen to take more and more chances from a poor position in order to keep hope alive. Ultimately, Carlsen lost on time, and MVL won the match by a two-game margin.

“I looked at the clock when it was about 10 minutes to go, and I was down three, and I figured I should be able to win two games in time to get a decisive game,” Carlsen said afterwards. “Obviously, it wasn’t a given that I would win those games…it was exciting at least to get that chance.”

Vachier-Lagrave came into the semifinal as a significant underdog, but figured to have a chance if he played well and the breaks went his way.

“I knew I was nowhere near a favorite, but my match plan was to play for tricks all along, and it worked,” Vachier-Lagrave said.

Nakamura Looks for Third Speed Chess Championship Title

The victory sends MVL to the final, where he’ll face off against two-time defending Speed Chess Championship winner Hikaru Nakamura. Earlier this week, Nakamura earned his spot in the final by slipping past American grandmaster Wesley So by a 13.5-12.5 margin.

Nakamura has earned a reputation as one of the world’s two best speed chess players – rivaled only by Carlsen – and comes into the final as a solid favorite. Unibet lists Nakamura as a -400 pick to win the match, with Vachier-Lagrave fetching +250 odds.


Speed Chess Championship Odds (via Unibet)
Hikaru Nakamura: -400 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave: +250

MVL will need to fire on all cylinders to beat Nakamura, and that likely includes running out the clock on the match if he gets a lead. He failed to do so against Carlsen, a decision that nearly cost him. Vachier-Lagrave says he won’t make that same decision in the final.

“If I get the opportunity to use the clock against [Nakamura], I will definitely do it because he’s done it repeatedly,” Vachier-Lagrave said after beating Carlsen. “I didn’t feel like using the format today to my advantage.”

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